‘You want to stop young people from volunteering in overseas orphanages, shouldn’t it be the other way round?’ This is the usual response I get when I tell people about one of our latest projects.

Volunteering in orphanages has been a popular form of ‘giving back’, particularly among gap year travellers, who combine their time volunteering with travelling overseas and with short-term missionaries - young people who want to put their faith into action. However, orphanages are not good for children’s development and there is now a global effort to keep children in families and prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children.

Unfortunately, these efforts are being hampered by the demand for orphanage volunteering, which is creating a market for ‘orphans’ and there is strong evidence of children being trafficked into orphanages to meet the demand for tourists and volunteers.

The NSMC was commissioned by the Better Care Network, an international network of organizations who are committed to supporting children without adequate family care, to conduct research among gap year volunteers and short-term missionaries under 25, to gain a more detailed understanding about why people choose to volunteer in an orphanage overseas and what can be done to persuade them not to. Better Care Network and its partners in the Better Volunteering Better Care initiative are working with the volunteer organisations to help them change the opportunities they offer (supply) and our research will lead to the development of a campaign to persuade young people to choose different volunteering opportunities (demand).

The research conducted in the US and UK revealed a range of different motivators about why young people volunteer overseas including:

  • Volunteer’s desire to ‘make a difference’ to children’s lives
  • The trust they put in the organisations to know what is needed and that their volunteering option is the best way to have an impact
  • The volunteering options offered by organisations are the ‘complete package’ for young people as they offer the chance to experience a different culture, while ‘making a difference’ supported by an organisation and often in a group with like-minded young people
  • Many young people believe that orphanages are a necessary evil as they believe those children are safer and happier away from their families

We have just finalised the report and are delighted to be working with Better Care Network and Livity to help create and evaluate a pilot campaign developed from our research and recommendations. Watch this space!